Do you have any change to spare?

On Christmas morning, Mom and I took the kids to mass at her church, the parish in which I grew up. The kids and I don’t get to church very much these days, for a lot of reasons (which may or may not be the topic of some future post here in A Mom’s World), but one reason is that I’ve never found another Catholic church that comes close to being like St. Jerome.

So I do look forward to going to church whenever I’m back home. Aside from the recent changes to the prayers (darn it), the place never changes and I find that comforting, even if I’m not a fan of the organist or the vocalist who sings in that annoying impossible-to-understand churchy warble. (During the responsorial psalm, Cooper leaned across his sister and stage-whispered: “What is she saying?” I just shrugged and pretended to mouth the right words.) The interior of St. Jerome is warm and welcoming, soft woods and easy lights, open and unfussy, a throwback to the 1970s. There is nothing cold or imperious about it. It’s the kind of place you’d imagine a pair of guitar-playing folk singers might lead the congregation in singing “The Prayer of St. Francis” — which is exactly what they did when I was a child in those peace-seeking 1970s.

So, while it’s different today in some ways, it’s still part of homecoming, my return to the church where I was married and in which all of my children were baptized, all events long after I’d moved away from the town.

This year’s Christmas mass had an interesting twist. Father David, the pastor, who is pretty forward-thinking in a lot of ways, decided to not give a homily. Instead, he shared, on a big screen, this video:

The 10-minute movie is compelling and beautiful, following a homeless man as he begs for change, which he then gives to others in need. I watched it with Joanna on my lap, whispering in her ear when she didn’t understand what was going on. At points I got teary and hugged Joanna tighter. Though unorthodox in nature (showing a video at church!!), the message was clear: this was the meaning of Christmas.

The other day I found the video on YouTube and watched it again. I was still moved by it. However, I read through the comments and was amazed by how many people just didn’t get it. They found it unrealistic (a homeless man would never give away money — he’d buy himself food! Or alcohol! That’s why he’s homeless in the first place!) and unbelievable (no one just gets hired for a job off the street like that!).

I guess those were the people who missed the point. The video is not supposed to be a documentary, a true-to-life rendition of actual events. It’s a narrative presenting a greater message, hopefully inspiring the viewers to do what the homeless man did — give to others in need. Spark a small change in the world.

It’s the butterfly effect. What you do every day has consequences, big and small, positive or negative. You can yell at your child, or speak with kindness, even when you’re angry or frustrated. You can tailgate the slower driver in front of you when you’re in a hurry to make the train to work or you can back off. You can avert your eyes and walk past the bedraggled woman sitting on the street corner or you can drop a penny in her cup. Who knows what your act of kindness will inspire the receiver to do?

Even when you have nothing, you still have something to offer.  What you choose to offer (something or nothing, good or bad) is entirely up to you. But I guarantee that whatever you give — or don’t — has meaning, and effect.

The video starts and ends with a penny dropped into a cup — the bit of change symbolizes the small things we can do that can add up to create a big difference.

So, buddy, can you spare a dime?


Holiday cards — boogers and all

For a lot of us, right now is the most wonderful time of the year — Christmas carols playing on iTunes ’round-the-clock, hours spent bedecking the house from ceiling to floor with greenery and shiny baubles, evenings passed by watching favorite holiday movies while snuggling with those you love the most.

Then it comes. The inevitable hiccup in the season, the one thing that can send you running for the adults-only egg nog faster than you can say “down with the Whos!”.

Posing the kids for the Christmas card.

It’s like herding cats, but with a lot more hissing and clawing.

First, one kid complains that another is standing too close. Then someone steps on someone else’s foot. Bunny ears are hovered over the unsuspecting first-rowers. An elbow is jabbed into the tummy of the bunny ear maker. A hair pull, a finger poke, a ripple of scowls.

Someone bursts into tears and can’t focus her camera.

Mommy retreats in search of a tissue and kids scatter.

Another holiday card effort bites the dust.

This is what happens, every year.

Possibly you are someone who doesn’t leave this to the last minute of the holiday season.  Maybe you are one of those amazing parents who is able to snap dozens of photos of your kids — all together, all smiling, all sparkly-clean with cover-model teeth and well-accessoriezed outfits — over summer vacation or while picking pumpkins or at a family gathering earlier in the year.

I am not one of those people.

My children are notoriously rebellious when it comes to getting their picture taken as a group. Oh, individually, they love it — mugging for the camera, they pose like models on a fashion shoot. I can even photograph them in pairs, and, on a good day, trios.

But all four? Together? All smiling? Fat chance.

So, every year I send out holiday photo cards with a collage of individual shots of each child, and every year I get dozens of cards featuring lovely full-family or all-children pictures.

I am jealous.

For once, I’d like to take that group picture, if not for the holiday card, then just for posterity, so when we all look back on our family photos in 20 years, we won’t think, “Gee, weren’t we ever together?”

Of course it’s not a big deal. The people on the receiving end of my holiday cards don’t give a whit about the perfection of the pose — they delight in the way the kids have grown and changed, the way each child’s individuality is increasingly evident in the contours of his or her face.  Also, thanks to Facebook and other social media, most of them have seen pictures of my kids throughout the year. A fancy new picture of them at the holidays is really redundant more than anything else.

Every year when I express my angst over the failed holiday card pose, a dear friend reminds me that the outtakes — the so-called disaster shots — are the best pictures of all. And, looking back, I know he’s right.

The failed Christmas card attempts include pictures from the beach — sand-covered kids licking dripping ice cream pops — and in front of the Christmas tree — the silly poses with eyeballs rolling, monster faces growling, tongues thrusting — and in the backyard during autumn — scarlet cheeks, runny noses, mouths howling with drooly laughter. And a thousand in between. There is not a portrait-worthy pose among them.

Still, looking through these “failed” shots, I see my children. They are messy and boogery and crafty and creative and always, always, on the move. Their insides are alight with energy and enthusiasm and they don’t have time to stand still long enough to pose for a Christmas card picture.

In these outtakes, they are alive and real. They are themselves.

And that’s what the holiday card should present to the world.  A snapshot of a moment in time, with all its failures and foibles and awkwardness and yet-to-bes and mess. Because that’s who people are, really. Each of us, a dorky work in progress.

Today I accomplished the impossible — after the usual griping and grousing and tantruming, I managed to take a very nice picture of four rosy-cheeked children in winter fleeces, set against a backdrop of bare trees and pre-snow winterland. If you’re on my mailing list, you’ll get your own copy.

I’m glad to have a nice picture to hang on my wall. If only as evidence that, you know, my kids were sometimes tidy and well behaved. With sparkly white teeth and all of that.

Because Moms like that sort of thing, from time to time.

Ah, but the outtakes from today were hard to say no to. Joanna’s growly, grumpy face in the first few shots. Mitzi’s pre-teen meltdown evidenced by puffy, red-rimmed eyes.  Ellie’s glittery-eyed, gap-toothed shouting of the words “Merry Christmas”, followed by an off-camera, surprisingly strong right jab to her sister’s side after a snide comment. Cooper’s head-shaking, shoulder-shrugging resign in the face of sisterly drama.

This is who they are — who we are — right now, December 2011.  Sometimes perfectly in place, sometimes not.

Kind of just like the rest of humanity.

Which is also kind of the message of the holiday season we are in the midst of celebrating — how we love each other not despite the flaws, but because of them. Cherishing each other for the totally perfect imperfect selves we are, always on our way to being something better, ever improving.

We send holiday cards to share the love we feel for others, born from the love we feel for ourselves.

Boogers and all.

How Pillow Pets are ruining Christmas

I’ll be the first to say it — my kids are NOT perfect by any stretch (for examples, see all of my previous posts on this blog).  But they are good (for examples, see all of my previous posts on this blog).

So I shouldn’t have been surprised that when it came time to make Christmas lists, they didn’t ask for much.

  • Joanna:  cookies, milk, a Pillow Pet
  • Ellie:  a unicorn Little Pony, a Pillow Pet
  • Cooper: a skateboard, a punching bag, a Pillow Pet
  • Mitzi: skates, a lantern, a Pillow Pet

Seriously, this is all they asked for.  I should be grateful — my wallet sure is.

 Now, here’s the thing.  Pillow Pets are out of stock.  

I had no idea they were such a hot item this season.  Sure, I could pony up $200 per Pet on amazon, but frankly, if I had that kind of money I’d probably be taking my family on a vacation.  Or at the very least, not spend so much time worrying about the price of milk.

So I prod the kids a little.  “There’s no toy you want?”  “Nope.”  Mitzi and Cooper huddle to consult each other and say they both want a DS.  I get a cramp in my side from laughing so hard (no, my 7 & 6 year olds are not getting a DS.  I don’t care a whit what other parents do.  I might as well just flush a stack of twenties down the toilet).

That’s all I manage to extract from them during a 45-minute interrogation at dinner last night. Time is ticking.  What to put under the tree?  (Books will be given by grandpa, and my mom has come up with stuff on her own, plus is giving a game to all her grandkids.).  But Santa?  Grandma?  They both need ideas!

It’s good that they are not greedy — given the amount of TV they watch, you’d think they’d be inspired by all those commercials.  No, their needs are few.  Pillow Pets.

And I feel badly.  They believe in Santa.  They believe that they are good and Santa will put presents under the tree, because, well, that’s how it works.  I remind them that they are free to ask for whatever they like, but it doesn’t mean they will get it all.  They never budge. They know what they want and look at me like I’m crazy because I’m asking them so often.  

So can I go ahead and wrap up a bunch of stuff I think they’d like and leave a note?  “Ho-ho-ho!  I know all you wanted in your heart’s desire was a Pillow Pet, but I ran out, so enjoy this Barbie/light saber/Pretty Pony/stuffed animal, even though you already have a dozen of this item, which means you like it, which is why I am giving it to you!  Ho-ho-ho!”

Yeah, it’s not a big deal.  My dad will post a response (waves to dad) with very wise words about the meaning of Christmas and not being about the presents and it’s about family and love, etc., etc.  And he’ll be right.  Others might point out that I should stop whining and be happy my kids aren’t greedy.  Yup.  They’d be right too.

I still have this sense, though, that for kids Christmas is magical, when anything is possible.  And we adults nurture this belief, knowing how fleeting it really is. We decorate and sing and bake and give all because of the season meaning.  (We capitalize on it as a behavior-management aid — Santa’s watching, don’t be naughty!).  So I think we ought to hold up our end of the bargain.  I’m not for kids getting 37 presents under the tree — frankly, I’m horrified to the point of nausea to hear of parents who spend thousands of dollars each year.  Does a five year old really, really need an Xbox?  I don’t think so.

But, darn it.  I’d really like to give them all that one thing they want.  They didn’t ask for much else.  They deserve it.  

Hmmm…If only I could sew!

Uh, Mom?

A teachable moment

Just before Thanksgiving, all the parents in our school were informed of the existing policy in Massachusetts regarding gift giving for teachers.  In a nutshell,  it’s a violation of the law to give a gift worth more than $50.  It’s a violation for a group of parents to pool their money for a gift valued over $50.  The only exemption to this is if the gift is intended for classroom use, such as books or software, supplies or materials.

Thus began the brouhaha.

Newspaper articles and talk shows focused on this hot-button holiday issue.  Some parents are in an uproar, feeling that they ought to express their gratitude in any way they like.  Teachers don’t make a huge salary, and, some say, the holiday season is a great opportunity to give these hard-working educators a little something they wouldn’t be inclined — or able — to get for themselves.

Others are in favor of supporting the existing regulation.  Some say this annual ritual is akin to slipping the hostess a twenty for a fast seating.  Some claim that parents who, for all intents and purposes, tip their children’s teachers are hoping the teacher rewards the child with better grades or simple favoritism.  Others point out that even with the $50 limit, teacher gifts can get expensive, especially if you have more than one child (hmm…groceries or teacher gifts?).

Whatever side you’re on, the fuss shows a general dim view of teachers.  On the whole, teachers don’t get into the business to make money or reap the benefit of seasonal generosity.  If they do, they couldn’t have been too bright in the first place and ought to be dismissed for that singular act of stupidity.  No, most teachers start their careers with at least a minimal sense of service, a desire to help make a difference in the lives of children.  How that changes over many years in the system is anyone’s guess, and maybe these are the educators who enjoy the festival of tipping.

But I would venture that most teachers are as touched by a child’s hand-made card as they are by a gift card to Bertucci’s or a bag of Lindor truffles (or a Coach bag, if you happen to teach in that kind of town).

Time for me to ‘fess up.  In my first year of teaching I was employed by a small Catholic school in southwestern Connecticut.  My salary was a whopping $18,000 a year.  Yup.  This wasn’t 50 years ago.  More like 15.  But I was 24, living with my parents, and happy to be doing a job I loved, at a school I enjoyed immensely. The parents were painfully aware of our piteable salaries, and Christmas gifts rolled in. I mean, seriously.  It was a little embarrassing to pack my car at the end of the day.  Most were tokens, ornaments or plants or a bag of chocolate.  I was touched by the effort, and every year when I decorate my tree I remember which child gave what decoration, and I wonder where that child is today as an adult, whether they yet have children of their own.  That year, the parents en masse collected funds and gave each teacher a cash bonus of $500.  Seriously.  That was fantastic.  $18K doesn’t take you very far, even living at home.  But it only  happened once, and I never expected it then or ever.  A couple of years later, when I worked at a private school on the South Shore of Massachusetts, the gifts were fewer, but equally heart-felt.  I loved that surly middle school students would sit down to pen a thank you note and offer a”Happy Holidays!”, even if their parents made them.  I know, I’m a dork, but I still have some of those cards in a box in the basement.

I really believe teachers don’t need more, don’t expect more.  It’s the parents who get in a bunch about it, and interestingly, it’s the parents in wealthier communities who find this issue to be most disturbing.   Parents with vacation homes who give the gift of a week of skiing.   Seats to a Sox game.  A spa weekend in the Berkshires.  It seems more like an effort to one-up the neighbors than to say a simple thank you to someone who is doing a good job.  Maybe some do expect preferential treatment for their kids, maybe they don’t.   I can’t say.  But I do wonder how the teacher feels, what his or her perception is of that parent’s expectations, how the teacher must wonder what others think whenever the child of a overly-extravagant gift-giver happens to get an A.

This is a teachable moment for parents and children alike.  What message do we want to send our kids in this already stuff-crazy season? 

I’m an English teacher, so I turn to a book.  The definition of a gift = “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”  (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).

The best gift a child can give to her teacher is an honest thank you.  Instead of shopping or collecting money or making collages and scrapbooks, maybe we parents should spend that time with our kids and talk about why we appreciate our teachers, why teachers are worth far more than the world pays them.  Maybe we parents should, in a giant surge of grassroots activism, gather our huge numbers and spend our time changing the way teachers are compensated for a job that society deems thankless but for this one time a year.

Teachers don’t need chocolate or gift cards.   Show thanks with support and advocacy.  Let that be the lesson for the kids.  Put your money where your mouth is.

Not $50.  Priceless.

How to Cook a Seven-Minute Turkey

This year I’m making Thanksgiving dinner at home — it’ll be just me, Ray, and the kids.  I guess he was concerned that the turkey wouldn’t come out as well as Muggy’s, because Cooper came home from school with this recipe for me:


I had been a little worried, but now I’m good to go.  My favorite part is that other than turkey, the primary ingredient is butter.  That’s my boy!  I wonder what I’m supposed to do for steps 6-8?

Gobble, gobble, gobble!

A Very Good Day….

April 12 is a very good day….

Today, my Eloise is 4 years old.  My Joanna is 3 years old.  So far they don’t hate me for the fact they share a birthday.

Today is Easter Sunday, a day that is all about new hope, new beginnings, new faith in a new future.

Today is the wedding anniversary of my cousin Sue and her husband Jay.  What a great day to celebrate love!

Today we’re going to Aunt Bernice’s and Uncle Frank’s house.  The grownups will watch the kids hunt for eggs and eat way too much candy and make up games and fight over toys.  We will wear our most forgiving clothes so that we can overindulge in AB’s amazing cooking and the overabundance of baked goods sure to cover every available surface.  We will talk the stuff of grownup thoughts and admire our children and bask in our family.

The sun is bright though the air is cool and windy.  The girls are wearing heavy leggings instead of fancy white stockings under their Easter dresses.  No hats — I’d like to say it’s because of the wind, but I just didn’t get any this year.  As far as I know, there’s no parade.

So much to be grateful for on this day, a day when your heart swells so much with love and bliss that it is likely to explode and you have to also be a little grateful that it’s a day that comes once a year, because any more than that would be an unbearable joy.

Today is the day that you wish for whenever you’re not having that kind of day.

A very, very good day.

Happy New Year!

To all of you….to all of us …thanks for 2008!  It was incredible…some highlights for me:

2008 was a year of reconnecting with old, old friends, via Facebook, primarily.  I’m glad for the service, because without it I would never have gotten the energy or motivation to reach out to the friends I’ve contacted these past six months.  I mean, what’s better than a virtual reunion — getting caught up without having to diet?  I love it!

2008 was a year of NOT being diagnosed with terminal illnesses.  My health exams continue to be clean.  Praise.  Please donate to any breast cancer or women’s health care society.

2008 was a year of NOT being pregnant.  A post for another day; an ambivalent emotion.  Finally, a birth control that works (email me for details).  Still, cuddling my niece/goddaughter Cameron makes me wonder, am I really done having babies?

2008 was a year of watching my children cultivate their independence.  School and friends expose them to stuff I’d put off a while (” The Clone Wars” and “Hannah Montana” spring to mind).  But natural maturity leads them to not only tie their own shoes but also wonder why water freezes and how babies are made.   Potty training parallels social obligations in frequency, demand, and unpredictability.  I am sort of not prepared.  Oh, how do my kids feel?  Hmm…is parenting about them?

2008 gave me the chance to remind myself of my identity beyond being a Mom.  Since Mitzi’s birth seven years ago, I’ve done little but change diapers, lactate, give birth, nurse, change, play with, dress, cajole, punish, and adore 4 remarkable kids.  Will you think less of me when I admit that sometimes I feel that I have a bit more to share with the world outside my home?  This year I took stock of my skills as a Mom, a teacher and a writer, and hopefully have set into motion the beginnings of new adventures for me, Jennifer-beyond-Mom.

2008 showed me that commitment is more than passion and interest.  It’s staying connected regardless of the dry spells, the confusion, the apathy.  Commitment is acknowledging that nothing is easy, no matter how important or miniscule it appears to the naked eye.  Love, marriage, parenting, career, it all takes work.   Any day we can wake up bored, uninterested, tired, uninspired.  Taking the next step, seeing beyond the moment of apathy to the moment of enlightenment — well, that’s the stuff of commitment.

“No one said it would be easy.   At least, no one said it to me.”  — Name that movie!! (Seriously, I may give you a prize!)

For 2009, mostly I wish for you all honesty, in feeling, in manifestation, in conversation, in the quiet of your bedroom, in the chaotic anonyminity of Donovan’s or whatever local bar you and your significant other have visited in order to share some Guinness stout and truthful revelations.

For my part, I can honestly say this — I am not perfect.   In any area of my life.  That’s okay with me — in fact, it’s a relief.  When you’re staring down 40 years old,the imperfections and failings of your adolescence are as mushy and in-the-past as pureed peas.  I hope that my kids can see me and know that despite my imperfections, I strive each day to better myself in ways big or small.  I don’t want perfection; I want to avoid stagnation.  I want to be better for them and for me.

2009.  Here it comes.  We’re all ready.  The question is, is 2009 ready for us?

Live out loud.